February 6, 2009

The Friday Record - Medicine on the Frontier

On January 21, my novella SALVATION BRIDE came out.

The hot dusty town of Salvation, Texas has more than its share of secrets in 1873 when Laura Ashton's stage rolls into town. Sheriff David Slade has no idea what baggage his mail-order bride is bringing into his life. Throw in the nightmares from his Civil War days and he's got more than courting to contend with. Laura's a woman ahead of her time, a woman trained in medicine. And she's got a will that could move mountains. Unfortunately, the only mountains in Salvation are in Sheriff Slade's memory. Can the determined doctor heal his pain, or will the dark secret in her past turn up to steal his Salvation Bride?

As you can see from the blurb, Laura is a trained medical doctor. Though this was unusual in the 1800's, it was not unheard of. There were 2000 women in 1880 with medical degrees. This doesn't count those who were midwives or 'healers.' A good part of these women, university trained or not, were practicing in the new Western Frontier, where doctors of any kind were scarce.

Women have always been the care-givers of the family and they played a major roll in family medical care throughout history. It was only natural that as they moved West, they became the care-givers of the community when there was no doctor. One woman, Nannie Alderson, who suffered a miscarriage, exclaimed to the hired men on her ranch when they wanted to call a doctor, "I don't want a doctor. I want a woman!" A newly arrived woman to the territory came to Nannie's aid and nursed her back to health.

When a doctor could be more than 100 miles away, and the nearest town ten miles, it became important for the frontier families to be self-sufficient when faced with a medical crisis. Most people on the frontier had what we might call first aid kit which would include sheets of surgeon's plaster to bind up broken limbs, dried herbs such as feverfew, oak of Jerusalem, thyme and marjorman, and even intoxicants, such as opium tincture, better known as laudanum.

Also kept in many of these kits were contraceptives or abortifacients. Usually these items were handed down from mother to daughter or from a friend, since birth control was a taboo subject at the time. While some of the information is questionable (such as using coal oil as a douche) others were tried and true.

Women learned from their mothers, aunts and friends how to handle emergencies, but relied on common sense to get them through the broken limbs, child birthing and epidemics. With the advent of science and disease control, we don't have to worry about the same diseases that the frontier women did - whooping cough, small pox, measles and even an infected cut. When you think of the conditions they lived in, the amount of schooling they had and the resources available to them, we really should praise these frontier mothers of ours! I mean, we're alive today, aren't we?

***Facts and quotes from Bleed, Blister and Purge: A History of Medicine on the American Frontier by Volney Steele, M.D.
Anna Kathryn

1 comment:

Susan Macatee said...

Fascinating subject! I've done some research on women doctors of the period and it's amazing what these women went through to be accepted by patients as well as their males peers. Salvation Bride sounds like a winner! I'll be checking it out for sure.